United States District Court, D. Maryland
September 22, 2016, Plaintiff Nicole Reinhardt petitioned
this Court to review the Social Security Administration's
final decision to deny her claims for Disability Insurance
Benefits and Supplemental Security Income. (ECF No. 1). I
have considered the parties' cross-motions for summary
judgment. (ECF Nos. 16, 17). I find that no hearing is
necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). This
Court must uphold the decision of the Agency if it is
supported by substantial evidence and if the Agency employed
proper legal standards. See 42 U.S.C. §§
405(g); 1383(c)(3); Craig v. Chater, 76 F.3d 585,
589 (4th Cir. 1996). Under that standard, I will deny Ms.
Reinhardt's motion, grant the Commissioner's motion,
and affirm the Commissioner's judgment pursuant to
sentence four of 42 U.S.C. § 405(g). This letter
explains my rationale.
Reinhardt filed claims for Disability Insurance Benefits and
Supplemental Security Income on December 14, 2011, originally
alleging a disability onset date of March 15,
2011.(Tr. 157-69). Her claims were denied
initially and on reconsideration. (Tr. 99-103, 107-10). A
hearing was held on January 7, 2015, before an Administrative
Law Judge (“ALJ”). (Tr. 33-52). Following the
hearing, the ALJ determined that Ms. Reinhardt was not
disabled within the meaning of the Social Security Act during
the relevant time frame. (Tr. 14-32). The Appeals Council
denied Ms. Reinhardt's request for review, (Tr. 1-6), so
the ALJ's decision constitutes the final, reviewable
decision of the Agency.
found that Ms. Reinhardt suffered from the severe impairments
of “multiple sclerosis; anxiety disorder; biliary
cirrhosis; [and] obesity.” (Tr. 20). Despite these
impairments, the ALJ determined that Ms. Reinhardt retained
the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to:
perform sedentary work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(a) and
416.967(a) except the claimant must avoid unprotected
heights, dangerous machinery, and exposure to extreme heat
and cold. She is further limited to routine, repetitive
tasks. In addition, claimant must avoid fast-paced production
(Tr. 22). After considering the testimony of a vocational
expert (“VE”), the ALJ determined that Ms.
Reinhardt could perform work existing in significant numbers
in the national economy and that, therefore, she was not
disabled. (Tr. 26-27).
Reinhardt raises three arguments on appeal: (1) that the ALJ
erroneously assessed her RFC under the Fourth Circuit's
decision in Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632 (4th Cir.
2015); (2) that the ALJ's explanation of her mental
RFC was insufficient; and (3) that the ALJ assigned
inadequate weight to the opinion of her treating physician,
Dr. Oh. Each of Ms. Reinhardt's arguments lacks merit and
is addressed below.
Ms. Reinhardt argues that the ALJ's RFC assessment did
not adequately account for the finding at step three that she
has a moderate limitation in concentration, persistence, and
pace, pursuant to the holding in Mascio, 780 F.3d
632. In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit determined remand
was warranted for several reasons, including a discrepancy
between the ALJ's finding at step three concerning the
claimant's limitation in concentration, persistence, and
pace, and his RFC assessment. 780 F.3d at 638. This case is
critically distinguishable from Mascio in several
respects, so that Mascio does not require remand.
understand why this case is distinguishable from
Mascio, some background is necessary. At step three
of the sequential evaluation, the ALJ determines whether a
claimant's impairments meet or medically equal any of the
impairments listed in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix
1. Listings 12.00 et. seq., pertain to mental
impairments. Id. at § 12.00. Each listing
therein consists of: (1) a brief statement describing its
subject disorder; (2) “paragraph A criteria, ”
which consists of a set of medical findings; and (3)
“paragraph B criteria, ” which consists of a set
of impairment-related functional limitations. Id. at
§ 12.00(A). If both the paragraph A criteria and the
paragraph B criteria are satisfied, the ALJ will determine
that the claimant meets the listed impairment. Id.
B consists of four broad functional areas: (1) activities of
daily living; (2) social functioning; (3) concentration,
persistence, or pace; and (4) episodes of decompensation. The
ALJ employs the “special technique” to rate a
claimant's degree of limitation in each area, based on
the extent to which the claimant's impairment
“interferes with [the claimant's] ability to
function independently, appropriately, effectively, and on a
sustained basis.” 20 C.F.R. §§
404.1520a(c)(2), 416.920a(c)(2). The ALJ uses a five-point
scale to rate a claimant's degree of limitation in the
first three areas: none, mild, moderate, marked, or extreme.
Id. at §§ 404.1520a(c)(4), 416.920a(c)(4).
In order to satisfy paragraph B, a claimant must exhibit
either “marked” limitations in two of the first
three areas, or “marked” limitation in one of the
first three areas with repeated episodes of decompensation.
See, e.g., 20 C.F.R. Pt. 404, Subpt. P, App. 1 at
§ 12.02. Marked limitations “may arise when
several activities or functions are impaired, or even when
only one is impaired, as long as the degree of limitation is
such as to interfere seriously with your ability to
function.” Id. at § 12.00(C).
functional area of “concentration, persistence, or pace
refers to the ability to sustain focused attention and
concentration sufficiently long to permit the timely and
appropriate completion of tasks commonly found in work
settings.” Id. at § 12.00(C)(3). Social
Security regulations do not define marked limitations in
concentration, persistence, or pace “by a specific
number of tasks that [a claimant is] unable to
complete.” Id. The regulations, however, offer
little guidance on the meaning of “moderate”
limitations in the area of concentration, persistence, or
assessment is distinct, but not wholly independent, from the
ALJ's application of the special technique at step three.
In Mascio, the Fourth Circuit voiced its agreement
with other circuits “that an ALJ does not account for a
claimant's limitations in concentration, persistence, and
pace by restricting the hypothetical question to simple,
routine tasks or unskilled work.” 780 F.3d at 638
(joining the Third, Seventh, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits)
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The Fourth
Circuit explained that “the ability to perform simple
tasks differs from the ability to stay on task. Only the
latter limitation would account for a claimant's
limitation in concentration, persistence, or pace.”
Id. In so holding, however, the Fourth Circuit noted
the possibility that an ALJ could offer an explanation
regarding why a claimant's moderate limitation in
concentration, persistence, or pace, at step three did not
translate into a limitation in the claimant's RFC
assessment, such that the apparent discrepancy would not
constitute reversible error.
case, at step three, the ALJ found that Ms. Reinhardt has
“moderate difficulties” in the area of
concentration, persistence, or pace. Accordingly, in his RFC
assessment, the ALJ included a restriction to address those
difficulties, specifically limiting Ms. Reinhardt to work
avoiding “fast-paced production standards.” (Tr.
22). While a limitation to unskilled work alone is
insufficient under Mascio, here the ALJ included
another limitation that clearly accounts for Ms.
Reinhardt's moderate limitations in concentration,
persistence, or pace. Accordingly, I find no error warranting
remand under Mascio.
Reinhardt's argument regarding the adequacy of the mental
RFC is likewise unpersuasive. The ALJ provided a detailed
analysis in the opinion of his evaluation of Ms.
Reinhardt's mental health issues, including a summary of
her own statements about her functional abilities, quotations
from the treatment notes from various appointments, and a
detailed synopsis of the consultative examination. (Tr. 21,
25). The ALJ ultimately assigned “little weight”
to the GAF score of 50. Id. While nothing prohibits
an ALJ from considering GAF scores as one component of a full
analysis of the evidence of record, it is well established
that GAF scores are not determinative of disability. See,
e.g., Davis v. Astrue, Case No. JKS-09-2545, 2010 WL
5237850, at *3 (D. Md. Dec. 15, 2010); Kozel v.
Astrue, No. ...